This post is an extract from Michael Singer’s book: The Untethered Soul. It is very rare that I feature a post that consists entirely of someone else’s work, but this book has literally changed my life in the space of the week. It has started to free me from intense barrages of neurotic thoughts, waves of physically painful anxiety and lows in my mental state that I can only describe as an all-encompassing fog.
Even if none of these things apply directly to you, I still believe that there is so much value to be found within this book and the rest of Michael Singer’s work. I have included one of the most illuminating sections of the book below but in truth, I could have included almost any chapter. I hope that this section makes you see differently, feel differently, think differently and start to feel joy in your life again. Ultimately, I hope that it makes you pick up the book for yourself. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
If you explore consciousness, which is your pure sense of awareness, you will see that it really does not exist at any particular point in space. Rather, it is a field of awareness that focuses down to a point by concentrating on a particular set of objects. You can be aware of feeling just one finger, or you can be aware of feeling your entire body at once. You can be totally lost in a single thought, or you can be simultaneously aware of your thoughts, your emotions, your body, and your surroundings.
Consciousness is a dynamic field of awareness that has the ability to either narrowly focus or broadly expand. When consciousness concentrates narrowly enough, it loses its broader sense of self. It no longer experiences itself as a field of pure consciousness; it begins to relate itself more to the objects it’s focused upon. As we have seen, this is what happens when you get so absorbed in a movie that you completely lose the broader sense of sitting in a cold, dark theatre. You literally get lost in the experience. This can be generalised to your entire experience of life. Your sense of self is determined by where you are focusing your consciousness.
But what determines where you focus your consciousness? At the most basic level, it is simply determined by anything that catches your awareness because it stands out from the rest. To understand this, imagine that your consciousness is simply observing vast, empty inner space…
Now imagine that passing through this space is the gentle flow of random thoughts objects: a cat, a horse, a word, a colour, or an abstract thought. They are sporadically floating right through your awareness. Now let one object stand out above the rest. It catches your attention and draws the focus of your awareness. You immediately realise that the more focused you become on the object, the slower it moves. Until, eventually, if you focus on it enough, it stops. The force of consciousness ends up holding the object stable simply by concentrating on it. Just as a fish can pass through water but not through ice, which is simply concentrated water, so mental and emotional energy patterns become fixed when they encounter concentrated consciousness.
The very act of differentiating the amount of awareness focused on one particular object over any other creates clinging. And the result of clinging is that selective thoughts and emotions stay in one place long enough to become the building blocks of the psyche.
You are not the building, You are doing the building
But who are you that is lost and trying to build a concept of yourself in order to be found? This question represents the essence of spirituality. You will never find yourself in what you have built to define yourself. You’re the one who’s doing the building.
You may assemble the most amazing collection of thoughts and emotions [or the worst]; you may build a truly beautiful, unbelievable and dynamic structure; but, obviously, it’s not you. You are the one who did this. You are the one who was lost, scared, and confused because you focused your awareness away from your awareness of Self.
In this panic, in this lost state, you learned to cling and hold onto the thoughts and emotions that were passing before you. You used them to build a personality, a persona, a self-concept that would allow you to define yourself. Awareness rested itself on the objects it was aware of and called it home. Because you have this model of who you are, it is easier to know how to act, how to make decisions, and how to relate to the outside world. If you dare to look, you will see that you live your entire life based on the model you built around yourself.
Let’s get more specific. You try to hold a consistent set of thoughts and concepts in your mind, such as “I am a woman.” Yes, even that is a thought, or a concept held in your mind. You, who are holding onto that, are neither male or female. You are the awareness who hears the thought and sees the woman’s body in the mirror. But you cling tightly to these concepts. You think “I am a woman, I am of a certain age and I believe in one philosophy versus another.” You literally define yourself based on what you believe: “I believe in God or I don’t believe in God. I believe in peace and nonviolence, or I believe in survival of the fittest. I believe in capitalism, or I believe in neo-socialism.”
You take a set of thoughts in the mind and you hold onto them. You make a highly complex relational structure out of them, and then present that package as who you are. It is just the thoughts you have pulled around yourself in an attempt to define yourself. You do this because you are lost inside.
Basically, you attempt to create a sense of stability and steadiness inside. This generates a false, but welcomed, sense of security. You also want the people around you to have done the same thing. You want people to be steady enough so that you can predict their behaviour. If they aren’t, it disturbs you. This is because you have made your predictions of their behaviour part of your inner model. This protective shield of beliefs and concepts regarding the outside world acts as insulation between you and the people you interact with. By having preconceived notions about other people’s behaviour, you feel safer and more in control.
Imagine the fear you would feel if you let the entire wall down. Who have you ever allowed directly into your true inner self without the protection of your mental buffer? Nobody, not even yourself.
The facades we build
People just put facades out there. They even admit than one facade is a little more real than the other. You go to work and get lost in your professional facade, but then you say “I’m going home to be with my family and friends where I can just be myself.” So your work facade drops into the background, and your relaxed social facade comes forward. But what about you, the one who is holding the facade together? Nobody gets near that one. That’s just too scary. That one is too far back to deal with.
It’s important to realise that it’s not just up to you what thoughts you cling to and what person you create. Society has a lot to say about this. Just think about how nice you are to people when they behave in accordance with your expectations. Now think about how you close up and pull back from them when they don’t. What are you doing? You are trying to change someone’s behaviour by leaving impressions on their mind. You are attempting to alter their collection of beliefs, thoughts, and emotions so that the next time they act it is in the manner you expect. In truth, we are all doing this to each other every day.
Why do we let this happen to us? Why do we care so much whether other people accept the facade we put out there? It all comes down to understanding why we are clinging to our self-concept. If you stop clinging, you will see why the tendency to cling was there. If you let go of your facade, and don’t try to trade it in for a new one, your thoughts and emotions will become unanchored and begin passing through you. It will be a very scary experience. You will feel panic deep inside, and you will be unable to get your bearings. This is what people feel when something very important outside doesn’t fit their inner model. The facade ceases to work and begins to crumble.
When it can longer protect you, you experience great fear and panic. However, you’ll find that if you’re willing to face that sense of panic, there is a way to go past it. You can go further back into the seat of consciousness that is experiencing the panic, and the panic will stop. Then there will be a great peace, like nothing you have ever felt.
If you go deep enough, you can watch the psyche being built. You will see that you are in the middle of nowhere, in empty infinite space, and all of these inner objects are flowing toward you. Thoughts, feelings, and the impressions of all worldly experiences are all pouring into your consciousness. You will clearly see that the tendency is to protect yourself from this flow by bringing it under your control.
There is an overwhelmingly strong tendency to lean forward and grab onto selective impressions of people, places and things as they flow through. You will see that if you focus on these mental images, they become part of a complex structure where there was none. You will see events that took place when you were ten years old that you’re still holding onto. You will see that you’re literally taking all your memories, pulling them together in an orderly fashion, and saying that’s who you are. But you are not the events; you are the one who experienced the events.
How can you define yourself as the things that happened to you? You were aware of your existence before they happened. You are the one who is in there doing all this, seeing all this, and experiencing all this. You do not have to cling to your experiences in the name of building yourself. This is a false self you are building inside.